By Kelly Hanson
Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, a beloved fairy tale about a tiny girl searching for a place to belong, has been captivating children for hundreds of years. Though this story has been adapted time and time again for stage and screen, there has never been a production like this one at Imagination Stage, written and directed by the acclaimed Natsu Onoda Power. Inspired by a form of Japanese street theatre called Kamishibai, Onoda Power has created a dynamic multimedia masterpiece that is as beautiful as it is unique.
Kamishibai is an art form centered on visual storytelling – it has its origins in Buddhist temples, which would use pictorial scrolls to illustrate histories and sermons, but reached the height of its popularity during the 1930s. Onoda Power has expanded on this idea. Thumbelina incorporates not only illustrations, but video projections, puppetry, dioramas, and much more. Two onstage shadowboxes, each with camera coverage from multiple angles, provide an opportunity for puppets, figures, papercraft, and other visual effects to represent events in the story. The video from these cameras is projected against the backdrop of the stage, and interacts in fascinating ways with the live actors. The entire cast is to be commended, as each participates in the puppeteering and other visual aids that bring this production to life.
Though Thumbelina has a cast of just five actors, it feels like many more, as they represent over a dozen characters with distinct and lifelike personalities. Unissa Cruse plays the titular character with humor and heart. Her Thumbelina is plucky and cheeky, yet kindhearted – in all, an excellent heroine to whom children can relate. Cruse’s physicality is a highlight of her performance; the role involves dancing, falling, fighting, and even an extended “slow-motion” sequence, which she and the other actors in the scene (Inés Domínguez del Corral, as Field Mouse, and Gary L. Perkins III, as Mole) perform convincingly and with hilarious results. Jonathan Atkinson narrates the story with energy and color and plays the long-suffering Swallow with warmth and wit. Melissa Carter brings bittersweet emotion to the roles of Maybel and Old Woman. Each actor apart from Cruse (who, naturally, plays Thumbelina in every scene) plays multiple roles and does a marvelous job of distinguishing between them with an array of entertaining voices and mannerisms.
Fans of the original story will note that the plot of this production diverges considerably from Andersen’s Thumbelina, most notably at the end, when the many friends Thumbelina has met on her journey form a sort of found family. This is a welcome change that supports the story’s moral – that a sense of belonging comes from friendship, rather than being around others who “look like you.” While the wide variety of characters, visuals, sound effects, and even audience participation will capture the attention of young viewers, it is this heartwarming message they will remember most. Thumbelina is an artistic triumph that is sure to delight children of all ages.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.